Win Independent Votes by Neglecting Social Cons? Bad Strategy

Recently, controversy emerged within conservative and Republican circles when Mitch Daniels, and more recently Haley Barbour, suggested that we declare a “truce” on social issues. Instantly the battle lines were drawn between social conservatives, who don’t want to see their issues sidelined and forgotten, and fiscal conservatives, who believe that we need to focus on the economy and health care as the big issues of the day.

Daniels and Barbour are perhaps merely being pragmatic. Both of these men are socially conservative. They both are all-around movement conservatives who have made very positive contributions to both their states and their party by their service in office. However, their calls for a truce on social issues are a strategic mistake.

I understand the desire for pragmatism regarding the issues that conservatives focus on in this election season. Indeed, I share that same pragmatism. I agree that jobs, the economy, health care, and the deficit need to be the things that Republicans primarily talk about. Not the only things, to be sure, but these acute issues of concern need to be the “drivers” of our talking points and agenda items this season.

The problem with what Daniels and Barbour have said arises from the fact that, while I do not think they personally intend for social conservatives to be tossed off the bus, their statements provide ammunition to those who do. There are indeed those on the right who would love nothing more than to shut social conservatives up once and for all, and turn the Republican Party into a scaled-up version of the libertarians.

(You should have seen how some of these concern trolls flipped out when an early leak about the Republican “Pledge to America” suggested that it might have one point which affirmed the Republican commitment to conservative positions on some social issues, along with its many points addressing fiscal issues).

The arguments advanced in favor of silencing the social aspect of conservatism are not good ones. It is argued that the Republicans need to keep silent on social issues because not doing so will alienate crucial independents who are needed for victory in November.

Is that so?

“Independent” is a nebulous term. To whom does it refer? To those who are not affiliated with a party, or at least with a major party? Fine, but that definition is still nebulous. “Independents” are not a monolithic bloc of people who all vote one way and who are all concerned about the same things in the same proportions.

Indeed, many people who are independents left the GOP because it was becoming too liberal, both fiscally and socially. Many left the GOP because it was perceived as not conservative enough on social issues. There are independents who don’t like conservative stances on social issues, and there are also independents who don’t like conservative stances on fiscal issues, either.

There are independents of every shape and stripe. We can’t appeal to all of them, even with only fiscal arguments. Trying to is a fool’s errand.

Examining the “independents” who are currently joining with Republicans to oppose the Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda -- the “independents” whom we can and do appeal to -- reveals people who are generally of the same stripe as the Republican rank-and-file. This makes sense, since the people to whom Tea Party and Republican ideas are going to appeal are going to be mostly the 40% who label themselves conservatives -- many of whom are not affiliated with a party -- along with the right side of the “moderates” group.

Indeed, polling tells us that the Tea Partiers who are driving this new wave of conservative activism are not as broad-spectrum as we’re often told. While only 44-49% of Tea Partiers identify with the Republican Party initially, it has been found that when pushed to name a preference, 83-88% of Tea Partiers identify with the GOP. Only around 10% of these folks are Democrats, and single digits identified as true independents.

So, who are the 83-88%? They are both Republicans and people who used to be Republican but left the party, often times because it wasn’t conservative enough.

In short, the pool of independents who are generally sympathetic to fiscally conservative ideas, but who are concurrently unsympathetic to socially conservative ideas, is probably not anywhere near as large as it is claimed to be. This is a lot of the reason why the Libertarian Party doesn’t have much appeal.

This isn’t just my opinion, either. The Tea Parties are the exemplary expression of fiscal conservative activism. Yet these same Tea Parties have had no problem whatsoever in supporting candidates who are extremely socially conservative, such as Mike Lee, Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller, Ken Buck, Carl Paladino, and Rand Paul, as some chagrined left-wingers have noticed. Why? Because the people driving this movement, and the resurgence of conservative activism in general, are across-the-board conservatives who, while understanding that fiscal issues are the order of the day, aren’t disturbed by the social side of conservatism, and it’s highly doubtful that they’d want to toss it into the garbage can. There seems to be little to no evidence that “independents” have been driven away by these socially conservative candidates.

In politics, you have to balance your appeal while being true to your base. While I certainly don’t think the GOP should limit its appeal strictly to the red-meat conservatism that drives its core, I also don’t think the GOP should abandon its base. In reaching out to disaffected “moderates” and “independents,” we need to keep in mind the old adage: “If your base ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” If you drift too far to the center and make your base stay home, you lose elections. Just ask not-President McCain about that.

If the GOP were to give every appearance of abandoning the movement conservative base who constitute its grassroots ground troops, who overwhelmingly account for its small-donor fundraising, and who are generally the most motivated to show up and vote (especially in off-year elections), the GOP would not win. Even in a great GOP year like this one. The fact that the GOP is polling so well right now is due to the fact that, while sticking to the vitally important fiscal conservative message, they have also taken their socially conservative base serious enough to treat them with respect. The GOP is actually doing a good job of balancing its appeal to the people on all issues across the board.

Yet disrespect the base by ignoring them, or worse, by telling them to shut up and get back under the stairs because they embarrass you in front of the decent people, and they will disrespect you by not voting for you. Simple fact of life.

Additionally, the Republican Party is already perceived to be the socially conservative party. If you were to ask the average Joe on the street whether the GOP was for or against abortion and gay marriage, for example, he would probably (and correctly, for the most part) tell you that it is against both of these. Throwing a few lines to social conservatives isn’t going to suddenly start driving away “independents” to the Democrats so that they can have more socialism and big government. Millions of “independents” won't suddenly realize that Republicans are against abortion.

Most folks are intelligent enough to realize that the GOP has to hold onto its base and will make the necessary rumblings to keep that base happy. Yes, a lot of the folks who are siding with Republicans this year may not care about social issues -- but that’s the point. They don’t care that the GOP is socially conservative. If they did, they wouldn’t already be telling pollsters that they plan to vote Republican, knowing full well the social conservatism of the party. The people who won’t vote for the Republicans because of social issues are the ones who are already saying they aren’t voting GOP this year.

I definitely do not have any sympathy for the view that the GOP should shuttle social conservatives off into limbo and run on a fiscal issues-only platform. Again: emphasize the fiscal issues, certainly, but keep the message as balanced as it needs to be to represent a true movement conservative effort.

Conservatism is a movement. We shouldn’t have fiscal conservatives splintering off and undermining social conservatives, just because they don’t like social conservative issues as much as social conservatives do, or vice versa. Both groups should accept the place of defense conservatives at the table as well, knowing that both fiscal and social issues might not be this group’s cup of tea.

Indeed, we speak of these three groups as if they were neatly defined, but that is somewhat misleading. Generally, a person who is conservative in one area will be conservative in all three, which is why it is all the more egregious to go downing one aspect or the other of conservatism. Instead of attacking one-third of conservatives, you’re really attacking two-thirds, or maybe three-fourths of them. Trying to isolate and quarantine certain classes of issues and declaring them off-limits is a good way to splinter the resurgent conservative movement. While the people arguing against any mention of social conservatism at all this year may think they’re helping to build momentum for November, what they are really doing is sowing the seeds of destruction a few years down the line. What happens when the economy is good again, and fiscal issues have receded to the background? The cracks will turn into fault lines because of unaddressed, needlessly created grievances, and we’ll be right back to a Democrat majority in short order so we can do it all over again.

Conservatives need to fight for conservatism. We need to avoid being single-issue fiscal voters just as much as some of us need to avoid being single-issue voters on the social issue of greatest concern to us. Stand for all of conservatism, all the time. Adjust the message to fit the issues of the day, but don’t toss some of the message out just because it’s not “your thing.”

We have to emphasize unity in the political realm because conservatism is a unified ideology. To be “conservative,” you really need to have both fiscal and social conservatism. Indeed, it’s ridiculous to try to neatly divide social and fiscal issues away from each other, as if we could only deal with the one but not the other. The two are intertwined, and the person who only tries to address one aspect or the other is not addressing either of them at all.

Take the issues surrounding abortion, for instance: is ending taxpayer subsidies for abortion clinics a socially conservative move, or a fiscally conservative one? The either/or question doesn’t make much sense, because, as Chris Christie just demonstrated, it is in reality both. What about abortion in general? Social conservatives obviously have no problem recognizing the rightness of protecting the sanctity of innocent life. Why couldn’t fiscal conservatives observe that each aborted baby now means less potential entrepreneurship, economic growth, and job creation in the future, and be concerned about the long-term implications?

What about welfare? Fiscal conservative arguments tell us that reducing the welfare rolls and getting people back to work, as the Republicans did in the 1990s, will lead to saving taxpayer monies, greater prosperity, and economic growth. Why can’t this argument fit hand-in-glove with the social conservative observation that much of what drives the demand for welfare in the first place are things like the breakdown of the nuclear family, the rise of single parenthood (especially female), the decline of Judeo-Christian moral standards, and the like? Addressing the social concerns essentially means you are addressing the fiscal as well. Two facets, same gem.

The examples of this cohesion are legion. There is no reason to think that “fiscal” and “social” conservatism have to be at loggerheads or are naturally discordant. The two are simply differing expressions of conservatism -- which is itself a fully mature, broad-based set of principles and ideas that form a coherent whole. To try to take this whole and parcel it out, some of it being “important” and the rest being “not,” is a recipe for disaster in the long run. If we’re to talk of “movement conservatism,” then let’s make sure conservatism remains a unified movement.